There are bad ideas and there’s bad execution. The European Club Association’s (ECA) proposed “reforms” of the Champions League happen to be both.
On the one hand, they are bad ideas founded purely on the self-interest of a tiny number of wealthy super clubs. On the other hand, the plan has been ham-fistedly executed. It has prompted not only threats of lawsuits and expulsion from domestic leagues, but also failed to rally the public support of other super clubs, thereby negating the leverage — rich revenue-driving clubs acting in unison to get their way — they might otherwise have had.
The battle rumbles on because the deadline is not that far away. Once the current deal governing the FIFA calendar expires, in 2024, European football could look a whole lot different.
Here’s the proposal:
– Instead of eight groups of four playing a total of six games in the Champions League group stage, you’d have four groups of eight playing 14 games. The top four in each would advance to the Round of 16, which would continue as normal. So if you get to the final, you’d play a total of 21 matches, rather than 13.
– The majority of teams wouldn’t qualify, as they do now, based on their domestic finish the season before. Instead, the top six sides in each group would automatically return the following season. The bottom two would be “relegated” to next season’s Europa League, unless they managed to qualify via their domestic seasons. But, of course, that would be more difficult, since there would be only four slots (remember, four would go to the Europa League semifinalists, who get “promoted” to the Champions League) to share among 55 leagues.
– To maximize global revenue, some games, maybe in the knockout stage, would be played on weekends.
– It would be a three-tiered system, with the Champions League on top, Europa League in the middle and UEFA’s new third European competition on the bottom.
That’s it in a nutshell, with details to be determined. The thinking is that with most of Europe’s biggest clubs guaranteed a place and with more games (and a potentially bigger audience) the competition will grow and generate far more money, some of which would be reinvested back into the system and a lot of which would go back to the super clubs. Trickle-down economics at its finest.
Last week, Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu, one of the main backers along with ECA (and Juventus) president Andrea Agnelli, said it was “evolution” and that the fans were asking for it.
This is where you might be tempted to call BS.
Given how lucrative the Champions League is to most clubs, you’d effectively be creating a permanent upper class of clubs who would be guaranteed a massive stream of income year after year, only for finishing sixth or higher in a group of eight. And if they do screw up? No worries, they can still qualify via their domestic league. In an already polarized footballing landscape, where the one-percenters dwarf the rest, is this what football needs?
Then there’s the obvious issue of incentives. If four of eight qualify in a 14-round tournament, there’s bound to be somebody who locks up their spot, just as there’s bound to be somebody who will finish bottom early, with nothing to play for. You already have meaningless in a six-round format: you’d have many more with 14.
Would fans of the big clubs even enjoy the group stage? Bartomeu says everybody wants to see the big clubs playing each other more often. Sure, if it means something. But if they have already qualified for the knockouts — and that will happen early and often with four of eight teams going through — is it really an audience-grabber?
Agnelli loves comparing Champions League revenues with those of the NFL, which are twice as high despite having a smaller audience. I can’t tell if he really thinks this is a valid comparison or if he’s being ignorant. In any case, here are 10 reasons why it’s a foolish analogy.
Then there’s the fact that this proposal would wreak havoc on domestic leagues. Whether it’s playing games on weekends — sure, you can move the Champions League clubs’ domestic fixtures to midweek, but what about all the other clubs? Are they going to sit around weekends? — or creating situations where sides have no shot at winning the league but have already secured their spot in the UCL by December so they simply go through the motions the rest of the year, it would simply be disastrous for the domestic game. Which, of course, is the bread-and-butter for most clubs and, indeed, supporters.
Why are they pushing this? One-percenters would say it’s only fair because they take on the “entrepreneurial risk”: they spend more, they have more skin in the game, they generate most of the income, so why should they share equally with clubs along for the ride?
The problem with that argument is that, in an era of Financial Fair Play, owning a big club is no longer the loss-making, risky affair it once was. Europe’s top-flight clubs made more than a half billion dollars last year on aggregate. In the Premier League, 85 percent were profitable last year. The reality is that it’s really about delivering ever-increasing returns to your shareholders, which, in Juventus’ case, happens to be mainly Agnelli’s own family, who own nearly two-thirds.
Or, in the case of clubs like Barcelona and Real Madrid that don’t have shareholders, becoming even more of a perpetual powerhouse would be a surefire way to bolster your status as a president and maybe one day have a stadium named after you. (It worked for Santiago Bernabeu… how does Estadi Josep Bartomeu sound?)
It’s not surprising that representatives from Europe’s top leagues fired back, with Liga boss Javier Tebas saying he’d go to court to stop the ECA proposal. French league officials have said they’re ready to ban any clubs participating in such a monstrosity from Ligue 1. Even the usually rather measured Premier League boss Richard Scudamore said it was “out of order.” You’d imagine mid-sized to small associations, who make up the bulk of UEFA’s 55 members, are also ready to go on the warpath.
The UEFA president, Aleksander Ceferin, insists these are consultations and brainstorming. He notes that the last time we had major reform, in 2016, just before he took over, it was the result of private backroom negotiations between UEFA and the clubs. This time, he wants to bring the discussion into the open before a decision is reached.
Of course, he’s caught between a rock and a hard place. Big clubs drive Champions League revenue and the threat of some sort of breakaway league/Champions League boycott is always in the background despite assurances to the contrary. It happened before in basketball with the creation of the Euroleague and it’s not lost on anybody that three Euroleague clubs — Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern — also happen to be elite football clubs.
Backers of the proposal argue that there would be a windfall for everyone, with increased revenue trickling down the system. On the flip side, given how high the barriers of entry would be (and they’re already sky-high) you wonder why anybody would ever invest in a club outside the elite. For what? To play on Wednesday nights in a devalued domestic league, at best competing for a title against sides who either have 10 times your revenue (most of it due to their virtually permanent Champions League status) or who field reserve teams because their focus is Europe?
There is an additional bulwark against this: the Premier League. England’s big clubs are far less reliant on Champions League income, because the Premier League is so lucrative. Which means they would balk at anything that messes with the Premier League.
It’s also notable that other continental super club bosses have stayed on the sideline. You wonder if even they realize that this is an asinine proposal, but they’re happy to let Agnelli do the dirty work: a bit like a spoiled 18-year-old demanding a Lamborghini for his birthday knowing he’ll have to settle for a Porsche.
Agnelli and ECA keep pushing, while plenty worry that UEFA are in lockstep with them. Ceferin denies this. Others say he’s giving Agnelli enough rope to hang himself. The impression is that unless Agnelli can build support among the leagues and other stakeholders, which appears about as likely as Cristiano Ronaldo developing a beer belly over the summer, UEFA won’t even consider it.
Yet frankly, it’s a whole heck of a lot more appealing than what ECA are proposing. If this crashes and burns it will have more to do with ham-fisted incompetence in the way it was pushed, rather than the idea itself. That’s why the game needs to remain vigilant. These guys will be back, in another guise, likely with a similarly self-serving pitch.